Monday, January 28, 2013

High Value Rewards Make For the Best Training

I came across another blog post today that urged owners to use their dogs' meals as rewards for training. The author writes,
Our pooches love to work for their meals, by doing something that will reward them with food, or make them search for their food. You have to feed your dog everyday anyways, so why not use this time that is required as a training reward?
Now, I'm not telling you that you shouldn't use your dog's meals as rewards. I know people who do and who use it successfully. The bigger piece of advice to I took away from this post were the great tips regarding meals vs. free feeding. In fact, there are a lot of instances in which you should use your dog's meal during training - such as when your dog has a health problem such as allergies and cannot have commercial treats, or if your dog is overweight and using his meals will eliminate extra calories.

However, the problem that many people run into during training is when you have to find a high-value reward. I always put it this way to my students: If you eat chicken every single day for your meals, are you going to also want chicken for your desserts? When I use treats they are delicious, they are stinky, and they are not always good for you, but there you go.

I use cheap stinky treats. I use expensive, healthy treats. I use hot dogs. I use cheese. I use things that are going to make my dogs bounce off the walls. I want them to work hard to earn the super deliciousness in my hand. Sometimes I have a mixture in my treat bag, other times (usually on my "lazy days") I have just one, but it's usually not the same thing every single day. Variety makes life more interesting, right?

I am blessed with a dog who will work for just about anything; I am also blessed with a dog who has very little food aversion or allergies. He loves his food, he loves working for his stinky treats - but what he REALLY loves working for is his ball. And he will do just about anything for a good game of tug. Jax is an enthusiastic dog.

With him, I use food to begin the introduction of a behavior. Food is great because I can reward quickly, praise often, and continue; rinse, lather, repeat - over and over. I can't do this as well with a toy (the "quickly, often, let's try that again!") because we then have to play the game, release, and focus again. Once he's got it, though, I will play the game all day long as long as he's doing the behavior correctly.

That said, I prefer a toy-driven dog. I use tone-of-voice a lot in my training - I use less tone of so-so work/effort, and BIG HAPPY tones for great work/effort (with behaviors he already knows, not behaviors I am teaching). I can offer a variety of rewards with a toy - if the work was done so-so, I can offer him the toy and the praise in accordance with the level of his effort; if he performs excellently, he gets a bigger, happier tone and a bigger, happier game. More often than not, he works to earn that bigger, happier game.

But not all dogs are toy-driven, and toys do not work well in a class setting because it is highly distracting to other dogs, so what to do you do? I still encourage the use of stinky treats and tone. I use a quiet "Nooooo" as my "try again" cue; I also use a sharp "aht!" if needed, but it's rare. Reward(food) is withheld until the behavior is executed - and the accuracy of the execution will also depend on the dog's knowledge of the behavior, whether he just has the idea of what you want, or whether you have been working toward cleaning it up. But, rewards still have to be worth it. This is where the "yes!" and "good boy!" and "good!" come in play, and again, the use of your tone is going to be key. But tone is not the reward, tone/words are the marker that the dog did right and then he has to wait for the reward - much like a clicker. The food/toy is the reward. So, when you're using food as the reward, you can offer one treat in the event of a so-so effort, and a JACKPOT! in the event of exemplary effort.

**When I'm first teaching a behavior, I use a lot of jackpots (toys or food). It is not until I feel comfortable that my dog knows the behavior that begin to back off on the level of my tone/rewards.

The trick is, finding your dog's "high value" reward.

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